Monday, April 30, 2012

Due process victory against upstate municipality

Do you know how hard it is to bring a due process case against a municipality? These cases often fail because under "substantive due process," the violation is not outrageous enough for the plaintiff to win. Under procedural due process, if the plaintiff could have brought an Article 78 petition in state court, the federal case might fail. Or it might not.

The case is Manza v. Newhard, a summary order decided on March 20. Manza sued the Village of Warwick, in Orange County, up in my neck of the woods. And a lovely neck of the woods it is! Litigation can cause bad feelings all around, though, which is what happened here. Manza is a landowner. He sued under the Due Process Clause, claiming that the cessation of free water service was sufficiently outrageous to implicate the substantive due process theory of liability. But the Court of Appeals (Winter, Raggi and Rakoff [D.J.]), sees it differently. This was not an outrageous denial of services because (1) the village gave plaintiff 60 days' notice "to afford the property owner an opportunity to pursue legal remedies"; (2) the village attorney (a defendant here) relied on a 1980 village attorney opinion that multiple 19th century deeds did not support free water service for this land and (3) State Supreme Court -- which ruled in Manza's favor on this issue -- said the case was "unique." So, even though Manza won in state court, a case that is "unique" cannot "shock the conscience" on this record.

Manza also sues on a procedural due process violation. The district court dismissed this claim, also, but the Court of Appeals reinstates it. True, Manza brought an Article 78, which is usually enough due process, but it only provided him with a post-deprivation remedy. Manza was also entitled to pre-deprivation process, which the Article 78 did not address. Under the Due Process Clause, the plaintiff has the right to be heard prior to the deprivation. While defendants say that Manza got pre-deprivation process in meeting with village officials before they turned off the water, the complaint and documents attached to it do not compel that finding. In fact, the major's Article 78 affidavit says that the decision to start billing Manza for water was final on December 15, 2008 and "no further administrative remedies were available to Manza in the Village of Warwick." This affidavit helps Manza, and so on the face of the complaint, he has a case.

Why did the district court get it wrong? The Court of Appeals says it was because the parties did not adequately brief the issues. "In vacating the dismissal of Manza’s procedural due process claim, we note that the district court’s brief treatment of the claim is understandable in light of the parties’ sparse briefing of the question below. Defendants’ memorandum in support of dismissal addressed procedural due process in less than a page; Manza’s opposition did not discuss the claim at all. On remand, the parties may develop this claim, and the district court may address it further as warranted."

No comments: